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Published: April 19th 2020
I awake in my small room, and slip out under the mosquito net that cocoons my bed. I know the layout so don't need to light a candle. My pack is ready where I left it last night, I sling it over my shoulder and disappear into the equal darkness outside. The dog is the only one in the compound that wakes, he comes out wagging his tail, I bid him farewell and exit through the corrugated iron door.
The road is rocky, a mix of skewed paving slabs and mud, it hasn't been repaved since the French abandoned Fort Carnot, in fact the only remnant that is still intact is the post office sitting next to the barracks overlooking the town. My three companions meet me on the outskirts, we do not share a language, and at this hour pleasantries are discarded. But although none of us speak, and not even a smile is shared, there is the bond of understanding. As both porters and explorers have a common joy of expeditions; the first is of making headway before time, the second is the pleasure of hardship and the third is that companionship is all powerful.
As we make it over the hill that shadows Ikongo, we glance back at the still dark sleeping town, our eyes a little accustomed to starlight, pausing only for a second, happy to have left undetected and then descend on the other side following the course of the Sandrananta half way between the ridge and the river. As the light of the pre-dawn opens up the sky and the land, we see a farmer descend the slope on of the other side and begin his day bathing in the waters. We pick up our pace, all recognising that as soon as the Sun appears over the horizon, it will seek to hinder us.
The pace never slows, and if one of the four must stop, the other three continue, never slackening for the fourth who must run to catch up. In this way, we maintain good speed and make it to the crossing. Three dugout canoes sit at the bank of the river as well as a floating pontoon raft moored nearby. We are waiting for some time before the boatman arrives from a small hut on the path back the way we came. I
paddle my own canoe and feeling the strong current pull the nose downstream, constantly thrusting to port, I flex my back into the stroke to maintain course. I am glad the rains haven't come yet, when the sleeping Sandrananta awakes and roars as it drags trees and mud to the sea. They say the spirits of the river enjoy nothing more than to pull down the white men into their watery lairs.
At the far bank we wait for the rest of the party that were travelling by transport, we are a little tense that they have not arrived already, the morning is slipping away and the great mountain is between us and Mamolifoly. Eventually they arrive and we begin again, although this time accommodating the new pace. We first must wind our way through the big valley, until we are closer to the pass. The land is over-cultivated; The paddy fields in the valleys, and ginger and cassava trees on the steep hills, leave no part untouched. The curved trees and teeth shaped holes in the hillside indicate the most recent of the mudslides.
We pass a village and are invited to eat
rice as is customary for guests. I am a little frustrated losing yet another hour of morning, the Sun is already rampaging across the earth, burning a dry crust over the dew-wet mud of the paddies. Our translator was told that it would take us foreigners two days to do the hike! I am disgruntled by the implication and take a walk. I meet a lady of the village asks me aside and tells me of the rocks she dug up in her field. I ask to see them, she glances around and then pulls out a clear crystal. It casts sunlight upward illuminating our faces as we stare into their core. Both us feel as if night has returned and a cold breeze has passed over us. She looks up to see if I had felt it as well, telling me that she would like me to have these, as they don't belong to this place and that I may take them far away. I slip them into my pack and we return to eat rice, with cassava and little vegetables. We thank the house for its hospitality, I exchange a glance with the lady one last time and
she smiles, and then we push on, the sun beating down on our necks and backs.
As we enter villages the children are the first to greet us and we buy a few lychee as it is the season, and they have some restorative qualities, both juicy to quench one's thirst and sweet to give energy. The lychee tree, similar to that of the avocado and mango; big round trees that the weary may lay against their trunks, and sleep a while in their shade. These noble trees are to be protected and loved. At the last village, we agree that time has not slowed to our pace, and we must divide up into two parties, I will go ahead with one of my original companions, whilst the two others and our translator will follow with the rest of the party. We will meet again at the top.
The pace of two is twice the pace of four and four times the pace of one. The path is now too narrow for anything but travel by foot, the trail is also more winding and we have begun to ascend. Higher up we see trees,
and I desperately long to be under their shade, feeling my skin blister from the unrelenting beam that tracks me. I am wearing boots, and he only his feet. I envy his hardiness as he navigates the rocky, muddy path quickly. He wades through a brook and I hop across between rock and rock. Then suddenly he stops, I correct the momentum from my previous jump to avoid him - Splosh! I watch my hat sail down the stream. Luckily it snags on a branch and I, now a little bedraggled but happy for the refreshment collect it. We share a laugh at the fumble.
We reach the Sandrananta again, this time a fraction of its former self, but still wide at the shallows. lacing my boots over my neck, we wade across. The cool mountain water calls to me like the Sirens in the old tales. My knowledge of the parasites here keeps me going for a swim. The mountain now stands before us. It is three hours past noon, and the sun is still high. My water no longer quenches my thirst; it is the temperature of a mug of tea allowed to sit for
We are at the river, therefore the bottom, I look up to the top, from here, there is only one mountain hiding whatever lies beyond. The pyramid is capped with two shops, selling lychees, lemonade and sugar cane spirit, or so I’m told. We begin. At first my companion leads; me, three paces behind in his shadow, all I focus on is to keep up and ignore my screaming legs. He senses me behind knowing that he cannot lose pace. Together we are irresistible. We don't stop, we don't give up. The climb is steep and over the peak the golden disc of the Sun faces us telling us to turn around. We defy it, half way up we switch positions. I must not let myself down, I must maintain the pace. I will make it to Mamolifoly before sunset. I feel his breath at my neck. My legs burn from the inside whilst my face burns from the Sun. The Sun hates me but we will not be overpowered. All of sudden the ground gives way, flattening, and I look up away from my feet, and a vast mountain range of pristine forests and
waterfalls stretches out before me. The Sun has retreated far away at the other end of the range. The most glorious little shack in the world sits quietly watching out for those who dare the ascend. A wooden bench greets us, my companion and I sit down, happy in the knowledge that neither Sun nor Earth can defeat us now all the way to down to Mamolifoly.
We are before time, we have endured and we are together.
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